August 12, 2020

Will Appeals to Personal Responsibility Improve Mask Compliance?

child soap bubble

I don't think there is any question that the COVID-19 pandemic would be having a negative effect on the United States regardless of whether we had more effective leadership. More effective leadership would help, but we'd still be hurting no matter how effective it was. That said, I think it is important to recognize that "leadership" in this context does not refer only to the president or even to the federal government. State governors and even local mayors have quite a bit of authority. Used wisely, it can make a positive difference too.

Since I live in Mississippi, a state where Republicans dominate nearly all levels of government, it should come as no surprise that most decision-makers are Republican. Similarly, it should come as no surprise that Republican views on all sorts of issues are held by the majority of residents. That means, for example, that opposition to wearing face coverings is high, as is the refusal to take the pandemic seriously even as growing numbers of locals die. These are some of the more obvious ways Republican values show up. One of the less obvious but equally fascinating examples is that the public university where I work has centered their campaign to encourage students, staff, and faculty to wear face masks around "personal responsibility."

The messages hammer home the point that one's safety is one's own responsibility. While this might seem callous to some, it makes sense in a state that continues to elect officials who are not interested in caring for others and who do not have much of a humanistic streak. This is what one should expect when empathy and compassion are perceived as signs of weakness. But by encouraging only self-interest (e.g., wear a mask because it will protect you), they are missing out on an opportunity to encourage people to think about their neighbors too.

If someone asked me today what my major beef with Republicanism was, I'd say something about this bizarre notion that government should not be tasked with taking care of people and that we should all be left to fend for ourselves or rely on our churches (because we are all bible-believing Christians, after all). If you asked me the same question tomorrow, I might have a somewhat different answer because there are so many possibilities from which to choose.

But beyond my philosophical disagreement with Republicans, I see little reason to believe that a "personal responsibility" strategy is going to be even minimally effective here. The primary audience for these messages are college students. People of traditional college are generally in good health and rarely perceive themselves as being vulnerable to much of anything. They also don't usually like being told what to do. To top it off, there is no mechanism to enforce compliance with the mask directives. Imagine telling an 18-year-old not to exceed the speed limit because they might have an accident and then admitting that nobody will give them a ticket no matter how fast they go. I can't say I'm at all surprised to see students on campus who are not wearing masks.

In the face of surging infections, hospitalizations, and deaths throughout the state, we are packing these students into on-campus dorms where social distancing is all-but-impossible, provided minimal oversight, exposed them to wildly conflicting messages from our governor on down, and now appear to have settled on demanding that they take personal responsibility for their health. Psychic powers are not required to see what happens next. The open questions are how long it will take and whether anybody will have the backbone to shut things down to prevent more needless deaths.

And lest anybody think I am blaming any of this on the students, I'll mention that I wouldn't have been any different from how they are going to be. I wouldn't have taken the risk seriously, and I wouldn't have worn a mask if I knew there would be no enforcement. Like most people of that age, I would have scoffed at the personal responsibility appeals. On the other hand, I think I would have been receptive to messages about not putting my parents and grandparents at risk (because I was not a complete psychopath). Unfortunately, such messages don't seem to fit with the "personal responsibility" campaign and are not being distributed through the official channels.